Some random thoughts on a random Monday….
I was just finishing my second and last cup of Earl Grey for the day and playing the little solitaire game on my phone. It got me thinking about when I first learned to play solitaire as a kid. The way I learned it (using real cards, of course – yes, I am that old!), there were fairly strict rules about the order of play. I was taught that if multiple plays were available, you first played on the ace pile, then on the grid. If there were two ore more cards to turn on the grid, you were supposed to start from the left. You were to complete all plays to the ace piles, then on the grid, before playing any cards from the deck. And there were no do-overs. A card laid was a card played, even when you were playing a solitary game of solitaire.
Now, the solitaire game app on my phone gives me do-overs, and I can choose the order of play for myself. If one play takes me on a path to defeat, I can undo actions until I am back at that decision point, and I can try available alternatives as I seek a path to victory. And the longer I played the game on my phone, the more I won, and the more I realized that this approach to playing would work equally well with a deck of real cards.
The analogy to life, I think, sipping the last of my Earl Grey, is inescapable. But it is not really about the do-overs, or the order of play, or even the rules.
I know people – and I will not name them here, in the interest of keeping the peace – who would argue vehemently that playing solitaire the way I do is “cheating.” And the accusation really has a hook for me, because I am a bit of a rule-follower at heart. I make complete stops at all-way stop signs in the middle of nowhere when there is not another car in sight – well, nearly always.
So, what is a person to do? Play the game by the strictest rules, so that at best one feels superior even if wins are rare, or play the game with liberal allowances for do-overs and the optimal order of play, so that one feels guilty even while racking up a high percentage of wins?
Those questions require that we ask another: Is the objective of our game to follow the rules, or to win the game? And from there, the questions just cascade: What are the rules for? To get you to success, or to assure that you can do what you are told? Is the goal to make winning more difficult, rather than to seek strategies that will overcome the obstacles? Or does it turn out that the goal and objective are to take advantage of every possible opportunity for a victory? If it is, then I think we have a recipe for something more than a game.
Everything about life involves rules, and we probably need to agree up front that a certain set of those rules is essential for our survival and for our safety and well-being. (Thus, I should, and do, feel kind of guilty about running that stop sign in the middle of nowhere.)
Once we get past those “necessary” rules, though, we are entitled, perhaps even compelled, to consider how much those rules are aimed at keeping a certain order that may satisfy nothing more than the perception of a need for that order.
In other words, if the main purpose of having a rule is to have a rule, isn’t that a license to set the rule aside in favor of acting in a way that leads to success?
We set rules for ourselves all the time – some that we adopt from the society around us, others that we develop from our own need for a sense of order. And if those rules are working to get us to victory, then we ought to keep them. But all too often, we get bound up in them without examining their function.
In solitaire, the rule is that if there are two available plays, you must turn the left-most card on the grid and play the game out even though defeat is inevitable. If you play enough times, you will find that the percentage of victories is less than 30%, perhaps closer to 25%. If you accept that the rule must be followed, and that to do otherwise is cheating, you are accepting that a 25-to-30% success rate is the best you can ever do.
If you change that rule – if you play the game of solitaire with choices of which play to take and with do-overs, so that if one play does not seem to work, you can undo it and take another option, you will find that the percentage of victories is something more than 45%. (Don’t ask me how I know.)
Now the question becomes, why would I follow a made-up rule that limits my ability to win? And beyond that, why would I accept that I am cheating if I give myself opportunities to increase my wins?
If I believe in myself enough to step outside the box and reject such rules, I also need a measuring stick for determining which rules I get to set aside, and which rules I need to keep following because they actually protect me, others, and society as a whole from harm. There are truths that are true in their essence regardless of my like or dislike for them and regardless of their convenience or inconvenience.
The line I need to find, and walk, is the line that keeps me honest about all of it. The line I need to find, and walk, is the line that properly defines a victory not just as something that I want, but as something that draws good from the universe and into the space around me. And this thought leads me to draw the analogy one step further into the realm of my spiritual life, my spiritual garden.
How do I define my victories? In the light of faith, as a hopeful follower of Jesus, it is a victory when it brings me closer to His way; it is an even bigger victory if it’s shared with others so that they might come to know Him better. Religion can be a place fraught with rules. Many of those rules are solid means by which we are able to practice and strengthen our faith and lead others to do the same. And many of those rules need to be examined, so that we do not allow them to limit our victories.
In this season of Advent, I want part of my preparation to meet Jesus to be around deciding which rules bring me the greatest chance of victory. In the end, it isn’t following the rules that will get me there; it’s following the path that He laid down for me.
And I can live with that.